“That Dáil Éireann:
— the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country;
— the continued public health guidelines and restrictions and their effects on employment and people’s movement;
— the consequences for many thousands of workers across the country;
— the likelihood that other counties may join Dublin and Donegal in higher levels of restrictions in the coming weeks;
— that the Government rhetoric of ‘in this together’ is contradicted by the cuts to the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and the ending of the eviction ban and rent increases;
— the need for the income of all workers and their households to be guaranteed in order to allow for the successful implementation of the necessary public health measures;
— that in recent weeks over 19,000 new claimants have applied for the PUP, reflecting the consequences of the current surge; and
— the increases in those claiming the PUP in areas affected by the recent restrictions, with Dublin, for example, now accounting for over 85,000 claimants in total with 10,000 new claimants directly following the increased restrictions;
— that on 17th September, the Government moved to reduce the PUP for the second time;
— this move, which reduced the payments to over 217,000 people by €50, with many others seeing a reduction of €100 per week;
— these cuts which come on top of an earlier reduction that affected over 60,000 workers in June;
— that the Government added a new requirement for all recipients of the PUP to be seeking work;
— that on 1st September, the State reduced the amount of subsidy to employers in receipt of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) which has had an impact on many workers’ pay;
— that this entailed a reduction for workers from a headline figure of €410 to €203 per week; and
— that the Government did this with no attempt to ensure employers availing of the scheme would top-up the income of workers who faced this cut;
— the fight against Covid-19 is ongoing with future surges and waves that will continue to restrict employment and movement across the country; and
— those workers affected will need income guarantees to cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic;
calls on the Government to:
— immediately reverse the cuts to the PUP introduced on 17th September;
— ensure that all workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic are supported with a minimum payment of €350 per week, including those over the age of 65 and seasonal workers;
— ensure that workers in the taxi, arts, entertainment, events, hospitality and tourism industries, and others whose industries are specifically affected and show no sign of returning to pre-Covid-19 levels of activity in the medium term, are supported with tailored and targeted schemes, involving step-down payments to allow for partial returns to work in an ongoing Covid-19 crisis;
— remove the requirement for all recipients of the PUP to be seeking work;
— review, in the interests of equality, all other social welfare payments, including disability, pensions, jobseekers and others with a view to establishing a universal minimum welfare payment of at least €350 per week to lift all in Irish society out of poverty; and
— ensure all employers availing of the EWSS are topping up their employees’ wages; and
further calls on the Government to ensure that:
— profitable companies, and companies with reserves, are not permitted to avail of the scheme, unless they can clearly demonstrate an inability to pay, or use this crisis to arbitrarily cut their employees’ earnings;
— where an employer can clearly demonstrate an inability to pay top-ups to their employees, that workers’ incomes continue to be supported by the State, and that this be funded through a Covid-19 levy on large profitable enterprises; and
— where a complaint against an employer is upheld by the Workplace Relations Commission or Labour Court under the Payment of Wages Act, 1991, regarding deductions from an employee’s pay, that employer shall lose their entitlement to the EWSS."
The essence of this motion is a call to reverse the cutbacks in the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment and restore it to €350. The budget being introduced in the Dáil next Tuesday should include a provision to that effect. I want to make a point to every single Government backbencher and every Deputy from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. These Members will be under a lot of pressure to vote for the budget. Most of them will have no problem with it whatever. However, if they are opposed to the cut to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, they must vote for this motion tonight. I will be watching the Fianna Fáil and Green Party backbenchers very carefully to see which way they vote. The majority of many of these Members' constituents and voters will want them to vote for this motion because they are opposed to the cut.
The Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment was cut on 17 September to €300 for some people and €250 for others. In other words, a cut was made of €100 a week for some and €50 a week for others. In fact, the Government planned further cutbacks. It planned to cut the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment back to a maximum of €250 in February and €203 in April.
To be clear, these cuts do not affect people on high or medium incomes. They are affecting low-income people and families. These people have not been slightly affected by the pandemic. They have been hit very hard. They are out of work as a result of the pandemic. Apart from people who have contracted the virus and suffered ill health and worse as a result, these people are among the hardest hit. The Government is hitting them to the tune of €50 or €100 a week, with more to come.
Who are the 200,000 people on the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment? We are told that one in four works in the accommodation and food sectors, that is, 51,000 people. Many of them are arts workers or taxi drivers. A large proportion of them are young and work in precarious jobs. These are people whose standard of living is precarious at the best of times. We know for sure that they have not been living the high life in recent months. The payment is being used first and foremost to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door. This motion aims to support and advance the interests of those people.
A simple and obvious question arises. Why was it right, proper and reasonable to give €350 to people locked out of work as a result of the virus in March and April if it is not okay to pay them now, despite the fact that their circumstances have not changed? Why is it okay to pay people €250 or €300 a week now, with the threat of further cuts, when that was not sufficient at the start of the year? When the cuts introduced on 17 September were being prepared during the summer months, the Government and the Minister may have thought there would not be much of an outcry because the numbers availing of the payment were decreasing. The virus was under a degree of control and its incidence in society was in decline. However, we now have the opposite situation. The virus and the restrictions are now on the increase. If the virus is strengthening, the supports for those it has hit must be strengthened as well. I see that in County Donegal, which has been on level 3 for some time, the number of people who were forced to apply for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment increased last week by almost 2,000. That is indicative. If level 3 applies throughout the country, with the possibility of having to move to level 4 or worse in the weeks ahead, it seems fairly obvious that the number of people who need the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment will increase, not decrease. It is unacceptable to ask an increased number of people to survive on €250 a week when their job would have paid a multiple of that and they have families to feed and dependants to provide for. This is a further argument for reversing these cuts at the very least.
The other argument against the motion was made yesterday morning by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in an interview on Cork's Red FM. He said that the country cannot afford to pay a €350 Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment if it is to be in place until next April. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said it might be necessary to keep paying it after that.
This is a question that is in the minds of many ordinary people and, for them, it is a legitimate question which the movers of the motion need to answer, and I am going to attempt to answer it.
The basic point is that Ireland is a wealthy country. There is a serious amount of wealth in this country but it is very poorly distributed. In fact, a tiny minority of people control the majority of the wealth. We have seen already how the Government turned its back on the opportunity to go after €14 billion in back tax from one of the biggest corporations in the world, Apple. We also have a situation, as The Sunday Times rich list informed us, where a mere ten individuals own and control between them a combined wealth of €50 billion.
I put it to the Minister and to the Government that it is obscene for the Government to say to some of the lowest income people in society, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, who are locked out of their jobs as a result of the virus, that they are the ones who must tighten their belts and who must make sacrifices, while it will not even entertain the idea of a debate on the issue of wealth taxes. We need more than a debate on wealth taxes; we need wealth taxes to be introduced.
I will finish on the point on which I began. We have a budget next Tuesday. That budget should do many things, but two of the things it should do are to restore the €350 pandemic unemployment payment and to introduce serious wealth taxes in order to pay that and other necessary measures.